Sunday, January 16, 2022

It’s not just ‘Partygate’ that should worry the Tories, but Boris Johnson’s lack of politics

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Given the lack of government business and legislation, MPs have literally little to do in Parliament

“What kind of suitcase are we talking about?” He was asked. “Was it a carry-on or the kind a family of four would take on vacation to Tenerife?”

The Prime Minister’s spokesman faced an agonizing question on Friday following the extraordinary revelation that party-goers brought a suitcase full of alcohol to Downing Street on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral.

Despite the ridicule, the spokesman issued a preliminary response that he could not forestall the Cabinet Office’s investigation into all the “Partygate” allegations.

The case (pun intended) for defending Boris Johnson’s tenure at No. 10 certainly looked thinner than ever, with even more evidence of the “hands, face, party-at-my-place” culture under his rule.

However, the spokesman said No. 10 apologized to the Palace for leaving the Dos, which took place during a time of national mourning.

Perhaps more revealing was the implication that Johnson himself had not personally contacted the Queen to express his regret at the incident.

The suggestion that the Prime Minister was present but not involved in some of the rule-breaking parties looks less tenable by the day and his week-long self-isolation at Downing Street (after a family member caught Covid) seems the perfect metaphor for its broader detachment from the public.

Johnson used to be famous not for his absence but for his presence, his unique ability to fill a room and the airwaves. In the spring of 2020, while he himself was ill with Covid at St Thomas’s Hospital, fellow government officials felt helpless without his energy and talismanic guidance.

Nearly two years later, some ministers are in many ways grateful that he has disappeared from television screens, for the real absence revealed in recent weeks is the lack of moral authority, political savvy and governance needed for a functioning prime minister are of vital importance. Instead there is only a void.

But the bigger problem is the lack of a detailed domestic policy program. The House of Commons adjourned at 3.30pm this week, the day Johnson issued his excuse-not-excuse mea culpa for the Bring Your Own Booze party.

This was not an isolated case. Given the lack of government business and legislation, MPs have literally little to do in Parliament. Bills are stuck in the Lords or kicked in the long grass, with several major policy issues being postponed until the next Queen’s Speech, which is expected in May.

Apart from the Corona regulations that expire on January 26, only a few major votes are expected in the next few months. All of this makes the weekly PMQs the only real event worth showing up to just to see the PM getting hammered on a regular basis.

With little else, the Tory backbenchers have plenty of time to discuss Johnson’s latest blunders or plan his possible replacement.

Although some optimists around the Prime Minister are hoping he can somehow survive Sue Gray’s Partygate investigation and then reset the government with the long-awaited Leveling Up plan, the plan itself may require legislation that may not be forthcoming in many months to arrive.

The enormous impact of the pandemic cannot fully explain the lack of detailed policy progress since 2019. Aside from Brexit, its points-based immigration system and some tougher penalties, last year’s promises and thinness have hardly been kept, Queen’s Speech deserves to be repeated this year.

The list of belated actions is piling up like a sink full of unfinished dishes: planning reform, “a million” new homes, an NHS recovery plan or workforce strategy, an Energy Bill to safeguard jobs, skills, social welfare and childcare in the context of climate change, workers’ rights are all in a queue.

That’s all dependent on whether Leveling Up gets the money it needs, or whether it’ll be more than a coat of paint for high streets or a few more mayors. The lack of a detailed strategy to boost economic growth is also a concern for some MEPs.

Anger at Johnson’s habit of “getting away with it” with sleaze is pernicious enough, but broken promises to “get the job done” in politics pose a greater risk to the Tories as a whole. Plans for “40 new hospitals” may prove to be a lunacy, and even by 2023, police and nurse numbers may not be back where they were in 2010.

And for all his promises to “better rebuild” the pandemic, if his party doesn’t pick up speed quickly, his party will have no road to prove it did so before the next general election.

This sense of urgency, and the realization that the government will need as much time as possible to bring about real changes that voters can feel, is why many ministers believe the 2024 elections will happen.

That’s why some are urging Rishi Sunak to strike ASAP following Investigator Sue Gray’s verdict later this month. Under one plan, after a 90-minute pause to digest his content, the chancellor could release the bombshell of his resignation, a move that would trigger an avalanche of letters spurring a vote of confidence in the prime minister.

“The longer it goes on, the more ministers look like they condone Johnson and the more it hurts them. His problem will be theirs if they don’t act soon,” a government insider tells me.

The Prime Minister’s act of literal and political disappearance will end when he reemerges from isolation for PMQs next week. But once the ruling on parties No. 10 is in, his party may want him to be given an indefinite leave of absence.

Johnson’s allies are hoping he can survive until the next Queen’s Speech Legislative Program, which is expected at the end of May. Disastrous results in local elections earlier this month (one Tory tells me London’s flagship borough of Wandsworth is ‘lost’ and even Westminster could fall) could mean he never gets there. By then, Her Majesty may not only have accepted an apology from Johnson, but also his resignation.

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